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1/2 idea No. 2: Lionel Penrose and object historiography experiment

By Jon Agar, on 26 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

The ‘material’ or ‘object’ turn in history of science and technology has been going strong for many years now. There are lots of good reasons for it, and good research that has been done. But I do have a worry about a mismatch between what we say and what we do. Documents ‘speak’ to us much more fluently than objects. It is completely understandable that object histories have a tendency to become histories evidenced by documents concerning objects. And why not? History, after all, should rest on the strongest set of evidential sources, and these will likely be a mixture of types.

But here there is space for historiographical experiment.  What do we learn when we deliberately withhold, as far as possible, documentary evidence, and, under such artificial conditions, ask what we could learn by foregrounding the objects?

(I’m well aware that object-centred research is not new. The experimental subject is really, in this case, myself. I need the artificial constraint of this experiment to help me think through my concerns with object-based history of science!)

Back in 2016 I was lucky enough to be shown round much of the Science Museum Group’s vast collections, not yet properly accessible to the public, part of an advisory role I took on. It was in Blythe House that I saw trays of strange objects that I thought might be the perfect subjects for my experiment.

Here are some of the objects:





These are objects made, for reasons I do not yet know, by the human geneticist Lionel Penrose.

The research question for the experiment would be: what can I say about history of science if these objects were the sources of evidence?

I think I would proceed by stages:

  1. I would note down all I already know about Lionel Penrose and the history of the sciences he touched. I am not so naive to think I am starting with these objects as the only sources of historical testimony, but I can at least try and control for the problem by being as explicit as I can about what prior knowledge I bring to the interpretation
  2. Proceed with study of the objects. Lots of good strategies to try, such as the John Hennigar Shuh’s 50 Questions.
  3. Then proceed with documentary study, there will be clues on Penrose’s papers.
  4. Then return to the objects again, and repeat stages 2/3. Notice there is a dialectic here. Memory – objects – documents – objects – documents – objects …
  5. Conclusions: I should be able to say what I learned from the first encounter with objects, what I learned when I encountered the objects after documentary research, and so on up the ladder

That’s the idea. I haven’t tried it yet, partly because soon after I saw these strange things the Science Museum Group’s collections at Blythe House were packed up (‘decanted’, like fine wines) for a move to a new collections building, not yet open.

But I think I will.

Does it sound interesting? Can it be improved? Has it been done?

(Just one thing I ask: if you know what these objects are, don’t tell me – yet!)




2 Responses to “1/2 idea No. 2: Lionel Penrose and object historiography experiment”

  • 1
    Tim wrote on 31 March 2022:

    As you’d expect, I like this one. I also suspect that it’s more or less exactly what historian-curators normally do in their ‘museum as method’ (Nick Thomas)*, and which curators rather wish historians would also sometimes do! Thomas talks about encountering objects in the store being a core part of MaM. Certainly the Penrose objects would be well worth the journey.

    *Thomas, Nicholas, ‘The Museum as Method’, Museum Anthropology, 33.1 (2010), 6–10

  • 2
    Jon Agar wrote on 1 April 2022:

    Yes, I agree it’s probably more novel for old-fashioned document historians (like me!). Perhaps its a step we should all take. Good tip on the Nick Thomas. thanks